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Let’s make the robots do the hard work. Why do we expect glass and glazing contractors to lift heavy sheets of glass into place, and we don’t expect steelworkers to carry around beams and columns? This week, we talk to Steven Brooks about the Smart Lift. The Smart Lift can increase longevity for glaziers in the glass industry and decrease injuries on the job site. We also chat about autonomy in the glass and glazing industry, and why it won’t be replacing people any time soon.
Also, Eddie shows us what the Amish do when they need to move something heavy. It's pretty spectacular. Check it out in the link below!
Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: my brother, Eddie Campbell.
Eddie: Hello, Tyler.
Tyler: Hello, Eddie. Well, we got an awesome show for you today. We're going to be talking to Steven Brooks about the SmartLift, and why glass and glazing companies should be using it. This thing is awesome. It is so cool. But first things first, Eddie has something to bring to our attention.
Tyler: All right, well Steven, thanks for joining us today, man. Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
Steven Brooks: Yeah, so my name is Steven Brooks. I'm the National Sales Director for SmartLift US. What SmartLift US is, is we provide mobile glass lifting equipment, for the glass and glazing industry specifically. We also use the machines in the marble industries and some sheet metal stuff and some other ancillary spots. But mostly, primarily, our main industry that we help is the glass and glazing industry.
Eddie: So describe what a SmartLift is. We're on a podcast, right, so I can't just show a picture. What is a SmartLift? You know, kind of what does it do?
Steven Brooks: So the easiest way to describe a SmartLift is it's a self-propelled vacuum lifter. It's a hundred percent battery powered. There's no hydraulics on it. You kind of can imagine it like an automatic push fork truck. But on the front of it, instead of having forks on it, it’s going to have like four suction cups that move in and out, and then the boom raises up and down, and you can spin a piece of glass. It's probably the easiest way to kind of describe it if you're trying to put a mental picture together.
Tyler: It's cool that you're able to lift marble and other metal as well. I didn't even think about that being part of what you could offer.
Steven Brooks: Well we call it a glazing robot, but really what it is, it's a vacuum manipulator, and with the vacuum suction we can really grab onto anything that's a smooth surface. We do have some specialty cups for some of the different porous surface things, but if you have anything that's smooth and heavy, whether it's a sheet of steel or sheet of glass or anything in between, that's kind of where we come into play to be able to lift and install that or move it around and improve the processes.
Tyler: So I could pick up cars and stuff like that, if it's got a smooth finish.
Steven Brooks: I mean we could probably get the windshield of it. I don't know, I mean, a Ford Fiat, we might be able to make a really cool video with that. Absolutely.
Eddie: How much weight are we talking here? I'm totally curious. Like how much can you pick up?
Steven Brooks: Yeah, the most weight that we could pick up is 2200 pounds. So I mean, it's picking up a small car. I mean we probably could make the most virtual, like best viral video ever doing that.
Tyler: I think it’d probably pick up a Mini Cooper.
Steven Brooks: Oh, absolutely.
Tyler: I think you'd probably get one of those.
Steven Brooks: Just not a full Cooper.
Tyler: Not—yeah. Not one of the Clubmans or one of the other ones for sure. Well, dude, I think that's so awesome. I kind of wanted to get some definitions cleared on the front end. Are we referring to the same thing when we say glass and glazing, or what are the differences there?
Steven Brooks: No, it's the same. Glazing is going to be kind of like the definition of installing the glass. So glass and glazing is just going to be that whole industry put together. That's going to include your high end residential, your small windows at your house and the apartment, to the high-rise, is kind of that whole industry. And then even, you know, your shower, mirrors, just anything that is really glass. And if you start looking around and you're driving around town and you just start looking at buildings and if you're in the glass industry—before I got in a couple of years ago, I never realized how much glass was just everywhere. And then when you're involved in the glass industry, from your cell phone to just, I mean, the glass is a major part of our lives.
Tyler: Well, I want to get back into the actual lift here. So how do you actually control the SmartLift?
Steven Brooks: Yeah, so it's controlled by a remote control. It's kind of like the same size as a remote control for your TV. So it fits right in your hand. Real nice and easy. You can walk right up to the window when you're installing the glass. And then it's got a couple of different speeds. So you have one speed when you press and hold it, hold the button down for a steady speed. And then we have the option of a 64th of an inch movement, which is really our claim to fame. The fact that when you're installing glass and you think of raw glass, everyone knows how fragile it is and how easy it might be to break that glass. So when you're trying to install into a building or a window or whatever you're doing with it, you have to have extreme precision. So each tap of our button, like you change the channels on your remote control, is a 64th of an inch movement. And then your drive functions are at the back of the machine. So you just push a little lever forward and it will allow you to drive forward, backwards. It’s all self-propelled. So it's really ergonomic-friendly.
Eddie: So you are— The movements are a 64th of an inch.
Steven Brooks: If you need it, when you need it, yeah. And a lot of times when we're installing glass, we only have, you know, a quarter inch all around the piece. So it has to have that extreme precision to be able to install the glass efficiently and safely.
Eddie: Oh, sure. Man, we spend a lot of time in the steel industry. And you saying, man, I could pick up a steel plate and manipulate, kind of move that around. I can see applications for fitting and whatnot, but this is an installer's dream, right? I mean, this is something that's saving them in a big way.
Steven Brooks: Oh yeah. It's been a need for a long time. There's just never really been equipment for that, for the glazers. But the, the SmartLift’s definitely is the, the industry has just been begging for this type of equipment. Now that we have it here, the response has been really good. There was a little bit of pushback when we first introduced it to the industry for the mere fact that guys for 20, 30 years have tried to find equipment that will be able to do that work, and do the job of setting glass and to have that precision, but they've been forced to try to use material handlers, Bobcats, fork trucks, things that are designed to move materials long distances but not designed to place it in a very, very tight spot. So that's where our equipment comes in and allows you to move the glass a long distance if you have to carry it down a hallway or a mile, whatever it is. But when you come and you have to install it, it's going to give you everything that you need.
Tyler: So kind of moving back into the history here, what were people doing before this came along? So you, you mentioned Bobcats and other, you know, forklifts and things like that. I mean, is that kind of standard? I just imagine people just lifting it on their back and you know, and taking it and putting it in place. So what did that look like?
Steven Brooks: Yeah. In our presentation when we're going through and presenting this equipment to a first time customer, one of the photos that I have is I have a photo from the 1950s and it's this sheet of glass that's 10 foot wide, 10 foot tall and there's, you know, 15 guys on it, get ready to lift it up to carry it into place. And on that slide I'll tell him like, Oh, you know, look at this. This doesn't seem like something you would see on today's job site. That being said, the very next picture is a picture from 2019 with a 10 foot by 10 foot sheet glass, which still has 15 guys carrying it by hand. So really a lot of times the glass contractors their answer for installing glass is we're going to install, we're going to put more guys onto it. You know, there's times where that's not going to be able to work cause maybe the reach and stuff isn’t possible to do by hand. Then they'll look at cranes and some other ways. But a lot of times your glass is right on first floor level or same level where you can pick it up and you can install it. Because everyone wants to be able to see in that spot.
Tyler: I'm curious about the price implications of this, too. ‘Cause I'm sure that lowers costs and I'm sure you've done your research on that. So like, what's the cost difference here between using a SmartLift and then having 15 guys on site?
Steven Brooks: So when you utilize, well we'll take my biggest machine, ‘cause my numbers are the best on the biggest ones. So my machine that can install a 2000 pound piece of glass. If we were going to try to do that with, many would even say a thousand pound piece of glass, that's a minimum of 10 people. You use my machine, it's a machine and two to three guys doing the same job safely. Your labor savings is 60, 70 percent on bigger projects on some glass. Most of the time we're seeing at least 25 to 30, 40 percent labor savings.
Tyler: Holy smokes.
Steven Brooks: Oh yeah. If you're not in the glass industry, if we take a person, we walk down the street and we just see an average person that doesn't know anything about construction. And if you ask them how they're going to install this big window or a big piece of glass or whatever it is, and they're going to say, “Oh, I'm going to go get a machine to do it.” They might not know the name of a SmartLift yet or what it is, but they're just going to assume that that's the way to do it. If you told them that you were going to have some guys come over and you're gonna have a bunch of people come pick it up, they would look at you like you're crazy. It's because it is, you know? But when the guys have been in the glass industry for 30 years, they're just so accustomed to doing it the same way over and over, you know? And that's why everyone always says, what's the most dangerous words in business, it’s “I've always done it this way.”
Eddie: I have been the guy under a sheet of plywood, just a four by eight sheet of plywood, when the wind's blowing. It's just not a fun feeling when you're getting carried around like you're holding a sail. I mean, make that glass now. This has gotta be huge on the safety end of things.
Steven Brooks: Oh, absolutely. General contractors have really, really taken great reception to our equipment. I have some general contractors that have bought the equipment themselves because their glass contractor didn't want to, but they wanted to have a safer way on their jobs. Now if we look at the COVID-19 stuff and everything that’s going on with the new PPE challenges on the jobs and social distancing and all of that? Now if you want to tell 10 guys they have to stand right next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, carry a piece of glass, they're going to look at you like they're crazy. Not only because they're not even worried about their shoulder or their back, but they're worried about the COVID-19 deal. So now our equipment is not only allowing the contractor to save money, but the guys are being allowed to even go back to work to be able to adhere to the new PPE standards and the social distancing. So there's a lot of different benefits of the equipment on the job sites.
Eddie: Well, and you got the safety of the people, and you've got the, I would think, material breakage risk.
Steven Brooks: Oh, absolutely. Yep. Both of those. I was on a job yesterday with a customer that it was their third day of using the machines. They just got it and the guy that was running it, his name was Joe, he's probably been a glazer for 20, 30 years, a long time. And he said one of the things that he liked about the machine the most and pushed his company to really invest in our equipment—he's been following us on social media for two, three years, he said—was the fact that he could be 55, 60 years old, and really without the equipment he'd be pushed out of his job because he just can't do the physical part no more. But the thing is he's got more knowledge than anybody on that job. So now though he's got the machine, he knows that he could work another 10 years or whatever, however long he wants to work, you know, whatever his choice is. But that contractor as well, the owner, they get to keep that guy that's their smartest guy in the field. And that knowledge that he has is irreplaceable. We all know that nowadays, the days of right now trying to find skilled labor, that skill part is very tough to find. You can find labor but you can't find skill. So when you have the skill you want to do everything you can to keep those guys in your company.
Tyler: Yeah, I mean, just retaining that guy and keeping him around to train some of the younger people on the project, I mean, for the next 10 years. That's a big value add for their company.
Steven Brooks: Absolutely.
Eddie: Well, you're not just getting him to train, though, either. I mean, the point is he's still effective.
Tyler: He's still working.
Eddie: That's right. You've kept him viable for 10 more years as a skilled tradesman.
Tyler: And that's funny, too, because we talk a lot about people being scared about robotics stealing jobs from people, right? And I'm sure you get a little bit of pushback on that, too, and you've heard that argument. But I mean, this is helping keep people in their jobs.
Eddie: We've looked at things like exoskeletons. Same thing. It's keeping somebody viable for a longer period of time, whether that be during the day or throughout their career. This is exactly the same thing.
Tyler: All right, so on your LinkedIn page, something that really caught my eye is you have this headline that just says, “Working to eliminate asking glazers to perform tasks no other trade would do.” So I'm sure there was something that really kind of sparked that thought in your head, so I would love to hear it.
Steven Brooks: Yeah, so that's actually our company mission. The reason behind that quote is this: If anybody that's listening to this podcast right now, if you've ever been on a construction site in the past 20 years, when have you seen a group of men carrying a four by eight sheet of steel, an I-beam, anything like that? And the answer that we're all going to have is no, for the mere reason that it's dangerous, and it's unsafe. The thing is, when you change that sheet of steel to glass, now everyone has this perception that we could just lift it up by men, by manpower. So that's where our equipment comes in. We don't ever want to see people having to lift glass or windows by hand on a job, because it's unsafe, and that's really what it comes down to. So that's where that quote came from and that's our company mission.
Tyler: I know we've kind of already talked about, you know, okay, well that's just the way we've always done it. But it strikes me that maybe the reason people are still lifting this stuff into place by hand is because it's so fragile and they're scared they're going to break it. Is that something that you've heard before?
Steven Brooks: Oh yeah, absolutely. Reason why the people want to do that is because they've, for the past 10, 15 years, the equipment that they've been using, it goes back to just wasn't really designed to set glass. One of the features in the SmartLift is when you're setting glass one of the hardest things you could do is called a pocket set. The way to imagine that is the glass actually has to go into like a two-inch pocket. It has to shift over into one side and then shift back over into the other side. Our machine has four inches of side shift built into it, but that side shift, there's a lot of equipment that can have that side shift built into it. But it comes back to having that 64th of an inch movement. When you have that precise movement, that's gonna eliminate you from breaking the glass. What we actually see when you start using the machines is less broken glass on the jobs. Reason is, when you're using the machine, you have one person and everything's controlled. You're moving at a 64th. If you get the glass bound for a second, you could pull it back, you can go a different way. When you have five, six guys on the piece of glass, if one guy starts to get lazy, that glass could break. A lot of times we hear from owners of glass companies that when they hire up a new guy, they know that the first two to three weeks he's going to break three, four pieces of glass, just because he's not used to the movements or working in unison with his crew—where now with the machine, the machine’s always going to work the same and you're not going to have as much broken glass.
Eddie: I've got a little anecdote here. When I was doing remodeling in bathrooms, I had a shower door that actually shattered in my hands. Like I was setting the shower door, and for whatever reason, the wheels that were on the top of it were just bound ever so slightly, and I had that tempered glass go to pieces in my hands. If you could save that from happening to people, I would say that you have done a great service to people, sir. ‘Cause that was a frightening moment.
Steven Brooks: Absolutely. I'll never tell anybody that when you invest in my machine, it doesn't mean you're never going to break a piece of glass again. Because if you're in the glass business, realities are that's going to happen. But it does help eliminate a lot of those possibilities. It's crazy, glass is so fragile and is so strong. I've been able to go to some testing facilities, like impact testing places, where they're trying to get windows approved down in Florida. They're taking two by fours and shooting them through the glass, and it breaks the glass but it really doesn't like puncture or go through. And same thing, now you're on a job site, and if— Where the glass is most fragile is gonna be in the corners of it. If you take a corner and you just tap it just the slightest little bit, that thing will just shatter on you. So it's crazy when it does break. I've seen some glass break, you know, in some simulations and it's never, never nothing you want to be around. I've seen one break on a job site before and it’s, you just want to put your head down and you know, everyone's not, no one's going to be excited about that. ‘Cause it costs a lot of money when you have to replace that.
Eddie: That's right, yeah, there's that monetary side of it.
Tyler: And then that's time, too, isn't it?
Eddie: Oh yeah, yeah. Because a lot of times—I mean, in our experience, the glass is something, if I'm not going to guarantee my openings, then I’ve gotta get that field measured, the lead times on glass are an issue. And so, if I've got a long lead item, and then when it gets there it breaks, man that's a bad day. Because that's a huge schedule— That means I'm going to have a piece of plywood sitting somewhere—
Steven Brooks: Two or three weeks if you're lucky, probably a couple of months, oh yeah.
Eddie: Right. So I mean, when I had a goal of closing my building in, and you know, now I've got an owner looking at me saying, “What's up with the sheet of plywood up there?” We broke one. So man, we talk about modularization on the show. It's a buzz in the industry, which is why we like to bring it up, but we also bring it up because we're very intrigued by it. One of the things we see when we put more together, so that we can take it to the field and assemble it, is we have tight tolerances we got to adhere to so it actually fits when we get there. But also like you're thinking about the mass and the weight of everything being put together in glass and glazing. We are seeing some projects now where they're modularizing the aluminum extrusions and the glass together, but now I'm adding weight. And so it would strike me that the SmartLift is a helper to that because weight is less of a factor. Are you hearing anything about that?
Steven Brooks: Yeah, so we'll kind of call that as more like the unitized pieces unit. Unitized systems. We see a lot of that. Especially just kinda depends on the cities. If you're more populated Northeast, Midwest, we see tons of it down in Nashville, Atlanta, the kind of, like, your bigger cities, we see a lot of that. In the more rural areas, we don't really see much of it yet. But as far as being able to install it on our end, for the machines, it's great for us. One, you're eliminating a lot of your chances of that broken glass where you put it all in aluminum frame because now it's a lot more protected on the job site, as well as when you add that glass in the weight, now you're really getting panels that are going to be 6, 7, 8, 900 pounds. And that's really like where our machines shine a lot. Whether it's like a window wall system, we've been seeing a lot of those. Or if it's something where they're doing full prefab exterior panels with like a big punch window opening, they're putting a full unitized system into that punch window opening. So now the walls are going up twice as fast as they ever have, but the glass and windows are already all pre-assembled where they just go right in. When you're doing that, you're trying, if it's a job that's using some modularization, usually they're trying to eliminate the amount of people on the job sites and really keep the on-the0job costs down. So that's, I mean, our equipment, that's exactly what it does.
Tyler: I'm curious, too: You probably have a better idea of this than I do since you're in the industry, but how often do you see people actually panelizing things in the glass industry, or do you see them lifting single sheets into place and you know, and mounting them like that?
Steven Brooks: It's probably really 50/50. On buildings that are four to five stories or less, I would say it's probably more of like a stick-built system where they're building all the frames on site and they're slapping the glass in afterwards. Stuff bigger than that is where we see more of the windows and glass is already pre-assembled together. It's a hotel project, it's probably modularized, you know? So it just kind of depends some on the projects, too. And I think that the architects and the complexity of the design probably has something to do with that as well.
Tyler: It strikes me that glazers would benefit from kind of panelizing these things and sometimes they're not doing it, too. That's, man, I don't know, if I'm a project manager on a job, I might request that of my glazer.
Steven Brooks: Well, I think that it's the way of the future. A lot of people are going that route more. They’re spending less time on the job and I think more so than ever, in the next five to ten years, we're probably going to see more of a push to that than we did in the past couple of years. Especially now with everything that's going on, it just makes perfect sense to do more work inside of your shop and less work actually in the field. It exposes you to a lot less risk. Also, you can just plan a lot better. And owners are gonna want, they want strict timelines, they want strict schedules, and those schedules, when you have a lot of things going on in the field, they can get disrupted very easily. If you have a lot of control in your factory or in your shop beforehand, with that hopefully your field process will be able to be a little quicker and move a lot faster.
Eddie: Yeah, as we get better and better at planning construction—which is what we have to do if we're going to unitize things, kit things, modularize things—and then reduce field labor as we get better and better at coming up with a plan for construction when we get there, we're going to knock it out quick. And this SmartLift is exactly the sort of piece of equipment that enables that. I mean it just looks to me like you're standing right in the middle of where the wave’s headed. So that's cool.
Steven Brooks: It's been a heck of a ride so far and it's been awesome. It's been a lot of fun.
Tyler: So, future question here, and you may or may not have an answer for it, but when do we start seeing this stuff be fully autonomous?
Steven Brooks: As far as like my equipment, or like field installation, or—
Tyler: Yeah. Just, yeah, both. Both can be applicable.
Steven Brooks: No, I don't really have a good answer for that. It'd be like a total guess, you know, so I think that what happens is at some point construction has to get more precise before that to really be able to happen. Right now there's too much, too many variables. We pour concrete, we're off an eighth inch, it messes up everything that we did two weeks prior or what that was before. So when you're building a building, I think that there's always going to be some part of humans involved in it. I don't think you're gonna be able to just have machines that are doing the full work. I do think that they're gonna continue to modernize equipment right now. Like if I was to take my window, my machine, and I have it to self-center or to do some things where it locates a positioning easier? Awesome. My customers are gonna love that because they can install window faster. A job I was on yesterday, I don't even know the company that it was, but they had stickers on everything. It was called six seconds. And what the whole idea of it was, anything that you do and it takes more than a minute to do it, if you can figure out how to take six seconds off of that process, you're going to make that process better. So they're always trying to improve everything just by that pure six seconds at a time. The fact that companies, large distribution companies, are focusing on that small of process improvements just shows you how much that they do care about that and how much meaning that is going to be moving forward to make sure that your systems and everything that you're doing is as efficient as possible. Yeah.
Eddie: Alright, Steven. One thing that we like to do when we get our guests on here is we give them the megaphone question. Simple question. It's just if I were to give you a megaphone that the entire construction industry could hear, and I said, here you go, 60 seconds. What would you say, man?
Steven Brooks: Not to repeat myself, but it's the most basic question of anything, and it's the SmartLift motto. If you don't ever see a group of guys carrying a sheet of steel or an I-beam or anything by hand on a job site, why would we think it's okay to carry glass by hand? So if you're in the construction industry and you have any type of smooth surface panel that's looking for a process improvement, whether it's your factory or it's on site, we have a whole bunch of different models, and we'd love to try to help you out and improve your processes and introduce you to our equipment.
Eddie: Spoken like a man that is passionate about what he does. I love it, dude. Where can we find you and SmartLift?
Steven Brooks: You can find us on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. If you search SmartLift US on any of those, you can find us. I also have personal LinkedIns and Twitters and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and everything. I believe in social media marketing, guerrilla marketing, more so than ever. So yeah, I'm a big proponent of that and trying to network and always meet different people. I tell everyone that I have this crazy goal to try to meet every person in the glass industry. I don't even know how many people that is in the US, it’s probably like 200,000 or something like that.
Eddie: So we can find you everywhere. That's awesome.
Tyler: On Snapchat, too. Are you on TikTok?
Steven Brooks: No. I shouldn’t be on TikTok. I got like, I'll tell you, I shouldn't be on it. I had it downloaded at one point, I broke my phone and I didn't get it back up, but my dance moves are not, not very good.
Eddie: I see a dance coming with a SmartLift, man.
Steven Brooks: (laughs) Probably at some point.
Tyler: All right Steven, well thanks for joining us today, man.
Steven Brooks: Yeah, I appreciate you guys. Thanks for having me on, it was awesome.
Tyler: Hey guys, thanks for joining us today. I wanted to take a second and point you at a couple of things before you go. Number one, make sure that you go check out our website. It is www.brospodcast.com. We're constantly posting new blog updates on there and thoughts of things that we're seeing in the industry. And then also, make sure while you're there, go check us out on social media. We are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. We're constantly asking questions there, trying to get people involved and engaged, and learn more about what's happening in the industry so we can keep bringing stuff to you that's relevant. Also, share it with somebody. If there's something in here that you thought was valuable, forward it over to your friend, let them know about the show. Again, that's going to help us out a lot. And finally, please leave a review. If you found this interesting or helpful at all, you could help us out in a big way by just hitting a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. So thank you so much for joining us this week. Have a good one.